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“”Any fact becomes important when it's connected to another.
|—Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum|
Apophenia is the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined by neurologist Klaus Conrad in his 1958 publication on the beginning stages of schizophrenia, and defined as the "unmotivated seeing of connections."
Apophenia is the term of art generally used in psychology for this phenomenon. However, there have been a number of other coinages of similar or related concepts in academic and popular discourse.
- Carl Jung's "synchronicity," which is itself a form of apophenia. Jung believed that coincidental events with some symbolic significance were actually meaningful.
- In statistics, getting a positive, or significant, result and thus rejecting the null hypothesis when there is no actual pattern is referred to as a "Type I error."
- Michael Shermer coined the term "patternicity" to describe apophenia.
- The general term "pattern-seeking" is sometimes used synonymously with apophenia.
Types of apophenia
Some phenomena classified under the general umbrella of apophenia include:
- Clustering illusion: Related to an inability to recognise actual random patterns. Uneven clusters caused by true randomness are mistaken for patterns.
- Confirmation bias: A bias towards testing to confirm one's hypothesis rather than disprove it.
- Gambler's fallacy: Feeling that past events reflect and alter probability when, in fact, they don't.
- Pareidolia: Seeing shapes, most often faces, in random patterns. Mars Anomaly Research and Lunar anomalies are replete with examples.
Other psychological phenomena may affect apophenia as well. By selecting data, consciously or unconsciously, apophenia can include hindsight bias, where seemingly meaningful events are interpreted as having "obviously" led to the present situation. Priming a stimulus will increase the likelihood that it will be "seen" or noticed even when it isn't actually there. A feeling of a loss of control can also increase the detection of false patterns in random data such as visual noise and stock market reports.
The explanation put forth by evolutionary psychologists for apophenia is that it is not a defect of human cognition, but selected for. This is due to the asymmetrical cost of Type I and Type II (not recognizing a pattern that does exist) errors. For example, someone might hear a noise that sounds like a predator growling. If he believes that it is a predator, but it's just the wind, the cost is only losing a moment's travel time to stand on guard. If he believes that it is just the wind and it actually is predator, the cost is his life. Research in this topic generally falls under "Error Management Theory." The propensity for apophenia has also been demonstrated in animals, such as in B.F. Skinner's research on superstition in pigeons.
- Apophenia entry in The Skeptic's Dictionary
- Apophenia: Definition and Analysis, Digital Bits Skeptic
- Synchronicity. The Skeptic's Dictionary. 2012 May 6.
- Type I and Type II Errors - Making Mistakes in the Justice System. Intuitor.
- Michael Shermer. Patternicity: Finding Meaningful Patterns in Meaningless Noise. Scientific American. 2008 December.
- J. Whitson. A. Galinsky. Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception. Science. 2008;322,115
- This game theoretical description is used in a number of evolutionary explanations of apophenia, such as hyperactive agency detection.
- Martie Haselton. Error Management Theory: Overview and Significance. Encyclopedia of Social Psychology.
- Haselton MG, Buss DM. Error management theory: a new perspective on biases in cross-sex mind reading. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2000 Jan;78(1):81-91.